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Never-ending West Side story
The themes behind this beloved musical still resonate today

By Patrick Langston, The Ottawa Citizen

When the perennially popular West Side Story played Los Angeles a little over a year ago, an audience member approached director David Saint, threw a drink at him, and demanded, "How dare you f*** like this with a classic?"

Saint, unsurprisingly, was nonplussed.

After all, he'd worked diligently alongside Arthur Laurents a couple of years previously when Laurents updated the libretto he'd written for the original Broadway hit musical, which debuted in 1957, about warring Puerto Rican and Anglo youth gangs in New York City. The new version launched in 2009 with Laurents directing, and Saint became director of the touring show, which eventually played L.A. and comes to the National Arts Centre this week.

In updating the show, Laurents, who has since died, wanted to modernize it by increasing the grittiness. He also changed chunks of the musical from English to Spanish.

All of which caused consternation not just for that L.A. audience member but for many others, including some critics.

Although public alarm has since subsided - returning some of the Spanish to the original English no doubt helped - the flurry of negative reactions was a revelation for Saint.

"I realized West Side Story has a life completely outside the show itself," Saint says. "It's become part of our cultural history, and I have to respect that.

"Even the people who claim the show isn't what it used to be, they do that because they've taken ownership of it."

What makes this mid-century spin on Romeo and Juliet - in West Side Story, it's Anglo Tony of the Jets gang and Puerto Rican Maria, aligned with the Sharks, who are the starcrossed lovers - so resonant that it continues to be mounted hundreds of times each year from high school auditoriums to the likes of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?

Why have so many musicians, from the Pet Shop Boys to the Tijuana Brass, recorded tunes from the show, helping make songs like Tonight and I Feel Pretty part of our musical heritage?

And what is it about West Side Story that in 1961 turned it into a multi-Oscar-winning musical film starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, probably informed Bruce Springsteen's mid-'70s epic rocker Jungleland (Springsteen is a Jersey boy), and later inspired Punk Side Story, a re-recording of the soundtrack by punk-rockers Schlong?

The show startled many when it opened in September 1957. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson began his review by calling the workmanship admirable but the material, gang warfare of the teenage variety, "horrifying."

Indeed, by the late '50s, teenage gangs in New York and elsewhere had proliferated along ethnic lines, and the city's West Side was gang central, according to a New York Sun story about the musical. In fact, the original director and choreographer of the Tony-winning show, Jerome Robbins, prowled the mean streets of New York gathering social realism fodder for his production.

Still, it's hard to imagine now that a musical featuring juvenile delinquents could so disquiet theatre goers. But to adults in the '50s, people whose experience of war had left them hungry for stability, the "otherness" of juvenile delinquency and of rocking 'n' rolling teen culture in general must have seemed a very real - if, for the majority of people, unwarranted - concern.

And while West Side Story is not overtly about black/white relations, its gang-related storyline is about Americans and so-called non-Americans, specifically Puerto Ricans. The latter were part of what was perceived by many at the time as a worrisome flood of Latino immigrants, according to Andrea Most, a professor in the University of Toronto's English department with a special interest in American theatre and drama.

"Race (permeates) everything at this point," says Most of the late 1950s. "I can see those tensions in the play."

That gangs and race/cultural relations still confound us in 2012 is one more reason that West Side Story continues to speak to us.

Most also says that even setting a musical in teen land was unusual despite the youthful verve of many previous musicals. Robbins, Laurents and their co-creators Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein (music) were clearly prescient - or just lucky - in picking up on the culture of youth that would bloom in the next decade and still holds sway in North America.

Laurents could also hardly go wrong with a tale about misunderstood youth. "Youth will always rebel," Most points out as we greying boomers nod, remembering vividly our own alienated younger days.

Commentators also routinely point out that giving a tragic ending to a musical (Tony dies) broke new ground and set the stage for darker shows that followed, including Fiddler on the Roof.

Despite the glimmer of hope in Maria's final song, Sondheim's master fully wistful Somewhere, the show's non-Hollywood ending as well connects with the diet of daily news - the young person knifed in a bar fight, a shooting in a parking lot - that constitutes our contemporary world.

And although it took two years to bring to the stage and none of his co-creators was speaking to Robbins by the time the show opened, when it did debut, the dance numbers bowled over audiences.

"It was the most expressive use of dance that Broadway had seen," says Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic at The New York Times. No mere addons, those balletic dance numbers are integral to the storytelling, from the sinister Jets and Sharks number that opens the show to the danced rumble that brings tragedy.

What the Broadway Across Canada show at the NAC does with all this remains to be seen and heard. Brantley, who feels Laurents' revamping backfired and turned the tough teens into cute kids, says West Side Story has to be well-danced to work. On the other hand, he says, "I've seen high school and college shows that were very moving because the young people in them were so emotionally involved."

Saint has his own take on emotion and West Side Story.

Convinced that the real passion of the show lies in the fire of Bernstein's music, he says, "I think people go to the theatre to have their passion released. No matter how cynical our society has become, I think we're all still yearning for that emotional release."

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Tags: 2010 national tour, arthur laurents, david saint
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